Sorry to keep harping on abstract theoretical topics. I was in Boulder for a 2-day workshop with my urban scaling research group. I'll blog about that soon; it is very exciting right now. Rosemary Joyce was at the Anthropology Department as a "Distinguished Lecturer." There were a few hours available between our meeting and the flight back home, so I went to see her talk, titled, Flows of Clay: Archaeology and the New Materialisms.
Maybe one should not criticize what one doesn't understand. This is usually reasonable advice, and I sure don't understand the "new materiality theory." I can't even figure out what is non-trivial about the "old materiality theory." One side of me just wants to leave this alone and get on with my business. But several aspects of this talk really disturbed me.
First, one of the major points was that archaeology has a lot to contribute to the new materiality theory, but the non-archaeologists working in that area don't know about archaeology or its value to their enterprise. I guess if one starts with the notion that new materiality theory is a Good Thing, then that is a reasonable point to make. But from where I start -- that archaeology is a historical social science science of the comparative and explanatory sort, then the propositions that materiality theory is is useful, and that archaeologists should go around worrying about whether we are contributing to it, are dubious. Is this a useful role for archaeology?
Second, I was bothered by the fact that Rosemary ruled out my intellectual perspective early in the talk. She presented scholarly knowledge as a choice between the humanities and the natural sciences. These are different, and they form the basis for our choices about the external connections and relevance of archaeology. Well, my scholarship is clearly not in either the humanities OR the natural sciences. My work as a historical social scientist simply is not captured by these two choices.
I dragged my colleague, Jose Lobo, along to the talk. As an urban economist, a former physicist, and an urban scholar, Jose is very interested in what archaeology can contribute to the body of knowledge about cities and economies and their changes through time. I had to apologize to him afterword for suggesting he attend the lecture. His overall reaction was that the talk was "vacuous." He was particularly incensed by Rosemary's characterization of the science of physics as being about "unobservables."
The thing that disturbed me most about this talk was that this kind of approach serves to isolate archaeology from the social sciences (both by ruling them out explicitly, and by using theory that is so highly abstract as to be meaningless) and to isolate archaeology from the public. Few people can understand this stuff. In the questions there was some discussion about whether undergrads could understand this kind of theory (the consensus seemed to be negative). I know that I wouldn't be caught dead talking about this kind of abstract theory to my undergraduates. If social-science ideas don't make sense in conversation to ordinary people, then I have serious doubts about their scholarly utility. See my post on the concept of "community" for some discussion of this idea.
To my mind, archaeology is about the human societies of the past. We document the traces of past societies, and we use our methods and concepts to make statements about social-science topics (households, villages, communities, exchange, production, ritual, domination, inequality, and the like), and we try to understand causality and change in the past. The "new materiality theory" does not contribute to these goals. I was temped to ask the question, "How does all this help us understand ancient society in Formative period Honduras and its changes through time?" But Rosemary is an old friend and that question would probably be considered hostile (although I would have intended it as a dispassionate query). I was a guest at the Boulder anthro department, and didn't want to rile things up unnecessarily.
As to the question in the title of this talk, I really can't decide whether this stuff is vacuous or just incomprehensible. To me, though, the implication is the same.